Come Out into the Street and Change the World

Come Out into the Street and Change the World

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Adam Greenfield, Inner Sunset Community Organizer

You probably understand community as knowing your neighbors, helping each other out, feeling a sense of commonality and connection, and so forth. But how does one actually begin building community? In this writing, I focus on one element – an element without which full community cannot happen: Bringing civic life back to the streets.

Why is the street so important?

Whereas the street was once the place for connection and for lingering, it is now a place of hypermobility and danger. That this common space could, in daily life, be for anything else is now unquestioned; it is apparently rude and dangerous to act otherwise. When we retreated from the streets, the roar of traffic then pushed us off the sidewalk into our homes. The retreat was complete.

In the street, recurring faces become familiar and familiar faces become friendly. From there we begin sharing our lives. Pushing back into the streets is essential; it is also easy, cheap, fun, requires little time, and is liberating. Below I’ll list some ways that you can do this, ranging from instantly doable to achievable with some resources or a little courage.

Neighbors learn lindy hop together in the street at the Inner Sunset Street Fair, organized by people in my neighborhood. Photo taken May 15th 2010 by Chris Duderstadt


Introductory thoughts

There could be said to be two main parts of the street: The sidewalk and the road. Reversing the retreat into our houses will likely involve pushing first back onto the sidewalk and then into the road (with parking spaces as a mid step between the two). Thus, I divide the below suggestions into these different areas.

I intend to motivate you to act. Don’t spend too much time thinking; start doing something as soon as possible. Below are my suggestions but you’ll probably get more excited about your own ideas. Think for yourself about how you could push into the street.

We need a culture shift in how we view the streets, especially in moving beyond seeing streets as places dominated by automobiles. I think that culture shift would include the following:-

  • Performing as many daily functions in the street as possible.
  • Considering the street as a place for lingering, not just movement.
  • People depend less on laws and rules and more on negotiation and compromise.

Step 1. Start with the sidewalk

My 30th birthday party on the sidewalk outside my house. Photo taken October 10th 2010

The sidewalk is the place to begin bringing community back to the public realm. These daily activities are suitable for individuals or groups to do on the sidewalk:-

  • Eating meals
  • Drinking tea or coffee
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Doing physical exercise
  • Making art
  • Playing music
  • Daydreaming
  • Smiling or waving at passersby
  • Chatting, or doing any of the above, with friends

Due to their tendency to degrade the public realm or to make people feel excluded, I recommend keeping the following away from public places:-

  • Phone conversations
  • Computers
  • Sunglasses
  • Smoking

Step 2. Move out to parking spaces

The ever more popular "Park(ing) Day" event. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

Once you get used to sidewalk activities try moving beyond and doing the below in parking spaces.

  • Dinner parties
  • Book clubs
  • Discussion groups
  • Board games
  • Music, acting, or other performances

These activities can be more enjoyable if you create a living room feel outside. Loot your house or build a street reclaiming kit by visiting garage sales. To create such a space, you could bring:-

  • Rugs
  • Cushions
  • Chairs
  • Plants
  • Tables
  • Ornaments
  • Materials to create a border around your space on the road side

Some people go a little further and create “linger nodes” that can be left outside all the time. Such nodes can involve benches, potted plants, and community notice boards. I recommend visiting the City Repair website for more ideas on this subject.

There are two San Francisco-based initiatives that deal with using parking spaces as civic gathering spaces:-

  1. Park(ing) Day: This event began in San Francisco in 2005 and happens once a year in September. Organizations or groups of people transform parking spaces into small parks in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways.
  2. The parklet program: I theorize that this is the City of San Francisco’s official response to Park(ing) Day. Parklets, which are becoming very popular, are “sidewalk extentions” that stay out all the time and anyone can apply. Applicants submit a design, get approval, find funding, and build the parklet. As far as government programs go, this is still relatively unbureaucratic but you do have to find all your own funding. There’s no next application round confirmed but I hear that round should come eventually.

Step 3: Reclaim the roads

Parachuting at the Inner Sunset Street Fair 2010. Photo by Chris Duderstadt.

Right now, in San Francisco there are two main City-sanctioned ways for communities to use the road for something other than storing or moving automobiles (the Sunday Streets event also offers possibilities for street activity if an event’s route passes through your neighborhood). Both are temporary approaches – see here for more information on these approaches.

  1. Apply for a block party permit ($150 to close one block for the benefit of the residents of that block)
  2. Apply for a street fair permit ($480)

However, these options are expensive and time-consuming for communities and require months of advance notice. In the long term, to properly make our streets places of community once more, we are going to need to forge new flexible, low-cost solutions that work better for communities…

…Solutions like the “Playing Out” scheme in Bristol, England, where streets are closed regularly for short periods after school hours for children to play in the streets. This short video may inspire you:-


Playing Out from Paul Gilbert on Vimeo.

Start talking with groups in your neighborhood, and elsewhere, about how schemes like this might happen where you live.

Your street, your home

Your street is part of your home. This is your space and you should feel welcome there. In fact, the more you are there the more everybody benefits. Using the street is a service to yourself and your community.

For further reading, I strongly recommend reading the book Mental Speed Bumps (author’s site, Amazon link) and visiting the Creative Communities website, where you’ll find many inspiring suggestions included in the MSB book.

Whatever you do out in the street, make sure it’s fun and promotes community and harmony. I promise that if you push back into the street, your life and that of your community will never be the same again. You can change the world on your own street and now is the time.

Friends and neighbors join me on my stoop at my birthday party. This was inspired by the famous Art Kane Jazz Portrait photo from Harlem 1958. Photo taken October 10th 2010.


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